Monday, December 13, 2010

Activity is Not the Same as Effectiveness

"It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way." - Proverbs 19:2

The other day, I received an email from a client with whom we are working to develop an appropriate strategy to unblock sales growth.  We've completed a preliminary analysis indicating probable root causes and, as these things usually go, several potential tactical actions have popped out of the study.  The email was to tell me that they've already put these latter into action.  Great right?

Groan. Here we go again.

One of the biggest frustrations of doing strategy consulting is having clients rush into action before the full analysis is done?  Why?  Because without a comprehensive review, it won't be clear what the actual root cause issues are vs. aren't.  Strategy issues almost always have surface symptoms which can be caused by several different root causes.  For example, take the common problem of stagnant sales.  First of all, is it a strategy or execution issue?  If strategic, is the problem caused by poor product/market fit, misaligned channel strategy, shift in the competitive market dynamics, etc. etc?  It does no good to change one's product targeting if the channel strategy is wrong! A proper diagnoses is critical to determining an effective course of action.

Inevitably, when I explain this to clients, they all nod their heads vigorously then most of them promptly leap into action anyways.  The result in most cases?  NOTHING happens.  No impact.  Just money out the door.

So why does this happen?  In my experience, for three reasons:
  • Confusing operational speed vs. strategic speed - A recent Harvard Business Review article(1) "Need Speed? Slow Down,"  addresses this well.  Operational speed is simply moving faster. But this assumes that one is doing the right things. Strategic speed means reducing the time it takes to deliver value.  It's about making sure you are doing the right things.  The key to this is holistic alignment - of initiatives, elements, resources, and priorities. 
  • Action is exciting, thinking is not - Action is exciting, visible, fun, satisfying, and worst of all, it's easy.  It gives the illusion of solving a problem when in actuality, all you may be doing is going nowhere fast or even worse, swiftly scaling the wrong wall.  Thinking, on the other hand, is unglamorous, boring, and hard.  Substituting action for thinking just because it feels good has a name:  laziness.
  • Buying into the Conventional Wisdom of Ready, Fire, Aim - Reinforcing the second point, particularly with Silicon Valley startups, is the idea that "ready, fire, aim" is a virtue (don't get me started on this one...).  There is a definite bias towards action (not a bad thing), a disdain for big company "analysis paralysis" (also not a bad thing), and the urgency to move fast, fast, fast.  We celebrate the entrepreneur who has ten meetings before noon followed by another ten before the evening networking event and then codes all night.  We love the caffeine buzz which keeps the fifty coffee houses in downtown Palo Alto in business.
Unfortunately for many of the adrenaline junkies, activity is not the same as effectiveness.  Many startups would be better served by ceasing all work for four hours, sitting down, and really think through what they're doing.  Good strategic thinking is a resource multiplier; one effective action is worth 100 pointless ones and a darn sight cheaper.

Now don't get me wrong.  This is not to imply that there isn't a lot of work in a startup and that effective strategic thinking is going to make it all go away.  The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of work, where cranking out the volume is necessary, but it only makes a difference if they are directed at advancing the company's goals.

So instead of booking those ten angel meetings to raise another $250K so that you can hire five more people to handle all the work, it might be worth turning off the email, silencing the cell phone, and locking yourself in a quiet room with a whiteboard and marker and think.  Make sure you're scaling the right wall.

You might not need that $250K after all.

  1. Davis, Jocelyn and Atkinson, Tom, "Need Speed?  Slow Down," Harvard Business Review Reprint F1005E (May, 2010).

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